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It only took me a quarter of a century to acknowledge that Rage Against the Machine is rap music. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it in 1996 when “Evil Empire” came out, nor that I don’t still enjoy it today (we’ll get into that shortly), but in my head I always classified it as alternative rock or what later became classified as “nu metal.” The programming of their music only codified these distinctions. Rap deejays didn’t play Rage, and rock stations didn’t play Mobb Deep, so it seemed clear that what Zack de la Rocha and his bandmates were doing was “something else” and did not fit within the confines of hip-hop.
If you take a good hard look at a song like “Bulls On Parade” though it’s undeniably rap. It’s rap with a slap bass, a drummer, and a guitar… but how is that really any different from The Roots? One can even argue that what Tom Morello is doing sliding his fingers up and down the fretboard is meant to imitate the sound of a deejay’s scratch. Actually I don’t think it’s even an argument — that’s EXACTLY what he does during the breakdown. Zach de la Rocha is known for his anti-corporate, left-leaning political stance on the issues of the day… and how is that any different from Boots Riley? The more you try to segregate RATM from rap the harder it gets to justify the distinctions. Even O’Shea Jackson would agree with Zach’s sentiments on “Vietnow”: “Turn on the radio/Nah, fuck it, turn it off!”
Even when I didn’t know what to call RATM musically, I didn’t trust my own enjoyment of their music. I suspected that Zach de la Rocha was a cultural appropriator, channeling the black rage undercurrent of rap and riding that wave to mainstream success most rappers would envy. It felt to me like Elvis Presley singing cover versions and gaining more success and fame for it than the black artists he was covering. This sentiment was famously articulated by Chuck D when he said “Elvis… was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me!”
For me that line of thinking permeated my perception of Rage Against the Machine — white boys who took rap music and repackaged it as rock music to headline tours all around the world. There’s only one problem there — Chuck eventually changed his stance and argued that Presley “had respect for black music” and used his popularity to pay them tribute and expose them to new audiences. If the great Chuck D could change his mind about Elvis, could I change my mind about Rage?
“Yeah I’m rollin’ down Rodeo wit a shotgun
These people ain’t seen a brown skin man
since their grandparents bought one”
The pointed lyrics of songs like “Down Rodeo” accompanied by the musical chops of Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk certainly help. “They ain’t gonna send us campin’ like they did my man Fred Hampton.” You can of course say it’s convenient for a white guy to talk about the Black Panthers without getting heat for it, but Zach isn’t exactly white anyway is he? He’s a mixture of Mexican-American and Jewish thanks to his parents, and although he might “pass” as white I sincerely doubt he identifies as such. His activism flows through the roots planted generations before him, and he clearly resents the way people of color are treated. He famously described his college days in Irvine, California this way: “If you were a Mexican in Irvine, you were there because you had a broom or a hammer in your left hand.”
To put my own hammer on this and nail it down, my distrust of Rage Against the Machine was entirely misplaced. I thought I was mistaken for enjoying “Evil Empire” because they were co-opting hip-hop music and culture, when instead Zach and his bandmates were using songs like “Year of the Boomerang” to inject their love of rap and their political beliefs into a mosh pit full of thrashing teenagers. Their listeners may not have realized what Zach de la Rocha was talking about, and let’s face it, there are many who still don’t to this day. The point is that I have since revised my stance and realized Zach is a rap artist backed by a damn good live band. He always was and still is, but it took me far too long to figure that out.